Scott Angle: Absorbing the risk so there's less of it in your business

May 13, 2022

It took me a four-decade career, work on four continents, a stint heading USDA’s research arm, and an interview with UF President Fuchs before I could get a job at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Ryan Klein just moved out of his graduate student office as soon as he earned his Ph.D. and into his faculty office just a few blocks away on campus. He’s in his second year as an assistant professor of arboriculture in our Department of Environmental Horticulture.

He's got all those decades ahead of him to grapple with the broad question of what kinds of trees we want to live among in our cities and suburbs. The answers may influence why people are drawn to big-box stores, the mix in developers’ landscape plans, urban planners’ designs of our streets and parks and public attitudes about the kind of canopies they’ll accept.

I saw Klein’s fusion of biology and policy at work at the recent Urban Landscape Summit sponsored by the UF/IFAS Center for Land Use Efficiency.

For those of you who have a history with our tree scientists, Klein succeeds tree expert and longtime friend of FNGLA Ed Gilman, and he’s a protégé of Andrew Koeser. I took it as a good sign that former FNGLA President Ed Bravo, a visionary urban tree expert himself, was there to hear Klein as well.

I see one of the central roles of UF/IFAS as absorbing risk so there’s less of it in your business. We can try things in the lab, the greenhouse and the experimental grove, where we can “fail” without the kind of catastrophic loss you’d experience if you failed in the marketplace.

Or in the case of Klein’s expertise, if trees sometimes fail to be fully embraced by the public. He reported that an estimated 36 people die in the United States every year from tree failure. But that’s just a statistic. He punctuated it with a screenshot of a television headline: “Tree falls on wedding party, one dead.”

You can bet that shapes the general public’s view of risk. As Klein said, “When you see one on the news it seems like they’re all falling out the sky!”

Klein has already analyzed thousands of trees for how well they have stood up to hurricanes. But beyond individual instances of tree failures, he’s looking deeply into how we assess risk. Our view of how risky it is to plant a tree in our yard or by the roadside takes into account the likelihood of it coming down, the likelihood that it will hit someone or something if it does, the attendant loss of life or property, and the questions of liability that ensue.

Klein compared various methods arborists currently use to assess these tree failure risks. His early findings are that the training, background and experience of the assessor is more influential than the method used in answering these questions of risk. Klein intends to help develop the kind of training that will promote consistency in how we look at the risk of a given tree in a given location.

To some extent, hiring a faculty member right out of grad school is risky. That can put someone on your payroll for 40 years, so you want to get it right. We lowered our own risk by developing Klein ourselves—he’s a double Gator. I hope he’ll help some of you better manage risk in the important work you do to make Florida’s cities greener.

Scott Angle is the University of Florida’s Senior Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources and leader of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).

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